While the highly infectious Omicron variant of COVID-19 led to a spike in infections over the holidays, high rates of vaccination among residents and visitors helped the Aspen-area community avoid severe illness. Omicron nevertheless made many people ill and forced employers to adjust.
Aspen Valley Hospital Chief of Medical Staff Dr. Catherine Bernard has spent the last two years leading the effort to treat COVID-19 in the community, and managing its effects on staffing and operations at the Hospital. Dr. Bernard, who is recovering from a mild case of COVID-19, updates the community about the Omicron surge, its effects on the Hospital and strategies for staying healthy in the coming months.
How well have the vaccines performed against the highly contagious Omicron variant?
We’ve had quite a few breakthrough infections in community and that’s because Omicron is different, with so many mutations. What we’re not seeing is increased hospitalizations. I believe that is due to the high levels of vaccination in our county and the valley across all vaccine-eligible age groups. We see mild cases that are not killing people or putting them in the hospital, so the vaccines are working.
Should people continue to get vaccinated or boosted if they haven’t yet?
Definitely. I’ve heard people say, “We’re all going to get this anyway, so why should I get a vaccine if people who are vaccinated are still getting sick?” Well, vaccinated people aren’t getting as sick. Vaccinated people aren’t dying nearly as much as unvaccinated people. Vaccinated people are less likely to develop Long COVID, which the CDC defines as a range of new or ongoing symptoms that can last weeks or months after first being infected with the virus that causes COVID-19. These symptoms can happen to anyone who has had COVID-19, even if the illness was mild or they had no initial symptoms.
Pitkin County Epidemiologist Josh Vance presented a study that shows people who are vaccinated and boosted if they are due, are significantly less likely to develop Long COVID. And I read another study recently that showed that many people who have had COVID-19 and subsequently have gotten vaccinated also have less risk of Long COVID, or experience fewer symptoms for a shorter amount of time.
What advice would you offer to those who believe they should just get COVID to “get it over with?”
I can see why people think that. Pfizer is coming out with a new booster that mimics the Omicron virus, so why not wait for that shot? And the press and some epidemiologists describe infections from the Omicron variant as “mild.” Having just come through a mild infection myself, I would still recommend trying not to get it. They call the illness associated with the Omicron variant mild, but when you have it, it doesn’t feel very mild.
In the grand scheme of things there are still risks with COVID-19 — of serious illness or death, developing Long COVID, or infecting someone else who is more vulnerable.
What’s going on at Aspen Valley Hospital right now in terms of patient numbers and levels of illness?
In addition to local residents, we have had people from all over the United States and the world presenting with COVID over the last month. Most had mild symptoms that didn’t require hospitalization. That’s the good news.
We are also seeing fewer positive tests per day for the last three weeks. Our peak was about four weeks ago when we had 80-100 positive tests each week for two or so weeks. That’s not counting people who tested positive elsewhere. By the third week of January, the number was in the mid-20s. It’s decreasing but it’s definitely still around.
During the peak of Omicron variant infections, what kind of adjustments did the Hospital need to make to keep departments running that were hard hit?
At our peak, we had over 50 Hospital employees out every day for a two- to three-week period. That’s about 10 percent of our workforce. It was an even greater percentage of our frontline staff who work with patients. A lot of our administrators were once nurses — people who are managers now or are working in departments like IT. So those working in non-clinical areas flexed back into clinical work. Other healthcare professionals were moved from departments that weren’t under stress to areas that needed the help. In the ER for example, we had ICU nurses covering shifts. As of today, we have six healthcare workers out. The number changes every day, and we’re doing much better.
Many Pitkin County residents have been vaccinated, or infected, or both. Does that mean our community can now treat COVID-19 as endemic, like a cold or the flu, and largely go about its business?
The real answer to that question is we don’t know yet. The first Omicron subvariant was detected in the state of Colorado just a few weeks ago. It is believed to be a subvariant of Omicron because it has even more mutations. In other countries like India and Denmark that have already gone through an Omicron wave, some people are getting reinfected with this new variant. It’s interesting that it’s reinfecting people who have had Omicron. So, no, we’re not able to call it endemic. We have to wait and give it more time.
What’s the best advice for staying healthy or avoiding serious illness in a busy international resort like Aspen?
Get vaccinated, wear a mask, wash your hands. I would even say minimize your contacts, but we have to recognize that isn’t always plausible. I also recommend activities that are lower risk and outdoors. Maintaining a healthy diet and staying active helps, too.
You can do all these things, but you just don’t know what’s going to happen. The last really sick patient we had at the Hospital was younger than me and didn’t have any risk factors. He spent a month on a ventilator. It’s best to protect yourself as much as you can.
What about the Five Commitments of Containment? Are they still relevant?
Definitely. Masks work. They work! They decrease the amount of virus you and the people around you are exposed to. It’s also worthwhile to wash your hands thoroughly and regularly.
If you’re in an enclosed space with poor ventilation or go to work in an office, restaurant or store, the five commitments are still a great tool. They are:
- Wear a mask.
- Wash your hands often.
- Maintain 6 feet of distance from people outside your home whenever possible.
- Stay at home when you’re sick.
- Get tested immediately if you experience symptoms.